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Fossil fuels equal war. That might be a sentiment you’ve seen or heard before, plastered onto placards or shouted by activists. But what does it really mean, Lucy Hall writes.
Each 2 October, the world marks Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, also celebrating it as International Day of Non-Violence. Traditionally the day commemorates the practice of peaceful protest and “the desire “to secure a culture of peace, tolerance, understanding and non-violence”.
In 2023, with the war in Ukraine raging, Western governments should look deeper: any serious non-violent strategy must also include a move away from fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels have a long history at the heart of global conflict. It stems as far back as World War I when oil became crucial in the mechanisation of armies — both the UK and US navies switched from coal to oil — but also as a catalyst for conflict, as the global thirst for petroleum grew.
It has been something of a constant in the chronicles of conflicts around the world ever since. Wars are fought over oil, yes. But oil also fuels and funds war.
And the fossil fuel industry profits from war. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has provided the most comprehensive view yet of this entangled, multifaceted, sinister relationship between oil and war.
The oil industry remains entangled with Russia’s war
Whilst Western governments decry the war in Ukraine, falling over themselves to condemn Russia’s war of aggression and demonstrate support for Ukrainians, they have done very little to disentangle the oil industry from this war.
When Russia invaded, oil companies wasted no time in announcing that they were pulling out of Russia, and in December 2022, the EU and the UK implemented an embargo on the import of Russian crude oil.
But Global Witness investigations have revealed the extent of British and European firms’ continued involvement in the trade of Russian oil: in the year after Russia launched its invasion — before the bans came into effect — Western companies traded 533 million barrels of Russian oil including crude oil worth €12.1 billion.
Take Shell, for instance. Having claimed it was writing off its Russian assets, it stands to get more than €1bn after Russian gas company Novatek bid for Shell’s stake in a major oil and gas development in the Far East (Sakhalin-II).
Last month it was reported that the deal with Novatek to take over Shell’s stake still hasn’t been finalised.
Siberian gas fields and Russian military supply chains
That’s not where Shell’s complicity with Russia ends, either. Shell is among the firms which have continued to trade Russian liquified natural gas, or LNG, since the invasion.
Earlier this summer, it was revealed that despite the war, the EU’s imports have jumped by 40% since the invasion.
EU countries are estimated to have spent nearly €5.3bn buying over half of all Russia’s LNG during the first seven months of 2023.
For perspective, the Wagner Group — the Russian military company behind the attempted coup on the Kremlin earlier this year — cost the Russian state €1bn from May 2022 to May 2023.
Then there is the case of the German oil company, Wintershall Dea, whose connection to violence in Ukraine is even more stark.
Reports from Global Witness and German media organisations have revealed the links between Wintershall’s Siberian gas fields and Russian military supply chains.
Der Spiegel reported that Wintershall’s gas condensate may have produced fuel used in Russian jet bombings in Chernihiv that killed dozens of civilians in Ukraine. Wintershall has called that allegation “construed”.
Loopholes allowing the Kremlin to profit should be closed
There are plenty of ways in which big oil companies remain tangled up in the Ukraine war. Companies like Shell and BP are taking advantage of a major loophole in the sanctions.
This loophole means that oil can be sent to third countries, who refine it and sell it straight back to Western markets.
In the UK, for instance, purchases of Russian-origin jet fuel have been worth at least £40 million (€46.1m) to the Kremlin in tax revenues in 2023 alone.
This has allowed Russia to shift its oil sales, avoid sanctions and retain the revenues that are funding the war.
Governments should act in the face of big oil and gas companies exploiting the war for profit.
The money that these companies have made from the war in Ukraine should be taxed at 100% and the profits redirected to Ukraine. The loopholes that allow Russia to keep selling huge volumes of crude oil should be closed.
War goes on, big oil companies continue to profit
There is no shortage of traditional non-violent forms of opposition to the war in Ukraine.
Protests against the war have taken place in over 100 cities around the world, and global landmarks have been lit up in Ukrainian colours as a show of solidarity. Yet still, the war goes on and still, big oil companies continue to profit.
If democratic governments want to reduce violent conflict, they cannot allow this to continue.
Peaceful protests are one part of a non-violent strategy. Ridding ourselves of fossil fuels is another.
Lucy Hall is Communications Advisor at Global Witness.
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